Column: The skinny mirror

I look like death warmed over, I think as I glance at my chalky face with dark cavernous eyes in the morning. This is a common thought of mine. When I’ve gone too long at work without a break, licking the lipstick off my lips in concentration until I finally come to my senses and stumble into the restroom. There, death greets me in my reflection. The mirror is also there when I have tucked the last of my children into bed and then remember that I haven’t taken off the 14 hours of makeup that have gathered beneath my eyes and creased aggressively into my laugh lines. “Death warmed over,” I mutter to myself.

“No, Mommy. You just look like you.”

This comment is from an adoring daughter who has just confirmed that her mother always looks weary. A child who does not know that mommies aspire to be wrinkle- and splotch-free. That her mommy should be airbrushed, like a magazine picture, as she drives carpool and grabs apples at the grocery. That her mommy is stumped by the mirror.

“Ashley, I’m starting to look so old,” my mother would say, as she examined her face in the vanity mirror. “I remember my mother looking at herself in the mirror and saying this to me, and now I say it to you.” I was in high school, and I didn’t give this much thought. Now I do. These words should have prepared me for the dark circles and laugh lines to come.

Twenty years later, I step out of the dressing room after donning white pants. Every spring, I try to find the right pair—the pair that will not make me look like the side of a delivery truck. A pair that will go with everything, be perfect for warm weather, look au courant. I own at least 10 pairs of disappointing white pants. I assess myself in the full length mirror of the boutique, ready for death, and I hesitate. … I look amazing. The woman in the mirror staring back at me is at least 10 pounds slimmer and 5 inches taller. I want to believe that it’s me. She has my head, and if I look closely through the perfectly placed dimmed lights, I might be able to see the eye circles.

I turn accusingly to the salesclerk. “You have a skinny mirror.”

She nods in agreement. “Others have told us that.” Like a trick mirror at a circus or cheap roadside amusement park, this oversized mirror elongates the body and distorts it. But just slightly. It makes white pants on a short-legged mother look fantastic. “I’ll take them. And I’ll take the skinny mirror as well.”

Of course, they didn’t let me out of the store with the skinny mirror, but they let me out with the hope that the white pants might work this year. There is hope to be had. My mother, after all, still looks amazing, even though she claims to have started aging decades ago. My friends always look fresh faced and youthful, even though they probably camouflage what they can in the unforgiving mirrors at home. And my children adore me and call me beautiful, even when I’ve got bad hair and sallow skin and tired eyes. Even then. Death warmed over. Find a skinny mirror with dim lights and move on.